Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Thursday identified $742.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) funds targeted for numerous specific rail transit projects nationwide. Unclear to some observers, however, was whether the funds released are a cash advance, simply making funds pledged earlier available more quickly, or additional funding support for various projects, made available now and to be “swapped” later.
For at least one recipient, Portland’s TriMet, the issue is crystal clear. Says TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch, “It’s not new money; it’s money, faster.” The speed is significant for TriMet, Fetsch points out, because “since the funds are advanced to us ahead of schedule, getting those funds means we’re saving roughly $750,000 in financing costs.” TriMet was granted $32 million for its South Corridor I-205/Portland Mall LRT project, already under way.
The Obama Administration has made clear its desire to get “stimulus package” funds out quickly to live up to the suggested goal. “This money will not only put people back to work and spur the economy, it will also provide an alternative form of transportation for people around the country to get to their homes, work and school,” LaHood said in announcing grants, funneled through the Federal Transit Administration’s already established list of “full funding grant agreements” with at least nine states.
But, significantly, DOT noted, “The ARRA grants announced [May 7] do not increase the federal commitment to the projects, but expedite funds committed under the agreement between the federal government and thetransit agencies.”
Other recipients named by LaHood include: Phoenix-Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail ($36 million); Los Angeles’ Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension ($66.7 million); Denver’s West Corridor LRT ($40 million); Springfield, Ore.’s Pioneer Parkway EmX Bus Rapid Transit ($2.9 million); Dallas’ Northwest/Southeast LRT ($78.4 million); Salt Lake City’s Mid-Jordan LRT ($90.9 million); the northern Virginia (Washington, D.C.) Dulles Corridor Metrorail Extension to Wiehle Ave. ($77.3 million); and Seattle University Link LRT extension ($44 million).
New York’s MTA Long Island Rail Road East Side Access was awarded $195.4 million, while MTA New York City Transit’s Second Avenue Subway Phase I was granted $78.9 million.
Despite the Florida legislature's repeated rejection of a 61-mile central Florida regional rail service, dubbed SunRail, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) and the Florida Department of Transportation continue to explore ways to keep the proposal alive.
“We've got to explore all of our options and see if we can move forward. There may be a delay in the service,” Mica said. “We've invested eight years. We have $100 million in public hearings and planning."
For its part, FDOT “is already working to save the regional rail system,” FDOT District 5 spokesman Steve Olsen said. “Our official position is, we're in the process of looking at the options. We're talking with our funding partners.”
FDOT, acting on behalf of the state, was to purchase right-of-way from current owner CSX between DeLand and Poinciana, at a cost of about $615 million. Legislators objected to several issues but especially the portion of the proposed agreement absolving CSX from any liability on the route, even if CSX was involved in any incident.
Adding moral support to the SunRail effort was DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, who said, “Commuter rail for Central Florida is important to the state and the nation.”
But the clock continues ticking. At a meeting hosted by the Railway Supply Institute in Washington May 7, CSX Director of Federal Affairs Stephen Flippin said time was running out for SunRail, and CSX’s deal with the state was set to expire on June 30.
Modoc Northern Railroad Co., which operates a short line railroad covering northern California and southern Oregon, has been criticized by Union Pacific and by Lake County, Ore., commissioners for a violation of contract.
Lake County Commissioner Ken Kestner said problems involving the railroad include poor maintenance and financial mismanagement. Kestner said Modoc Northern wrote the county a $45,000 check last fail that did not clear.
UP did not comment on specifics; the Class I interfaces with Modoc Northern at Klamath Falls, Ore.
Tulelake, Calif.-based Modoc Northern Railroad operates 160 miles of track covering four counties.
Among all railroad employees, the crews that operate trains have taken the hardest hit since traffic began to plummet. Statistics released Wednesday by the Surface Transportation Board showed a 12.01% decline in transportation (train and engine) employment in March, to 59,901, compared with March 2008. Total employment was down 5.18% to 154,960 in March 2009.
Maintenance of way and structures employment rose 0.35% in March to 34,675. Transportation (other than train and engine) was up 7.07% to 7,106. All other categories declined: executives, officials, and staff assistants, 10,013, down 0.81%; professional and administrative, 13,520, down 1.32%; and maintenance of equipment and stores, 29,745, down 1.95%.
One of America's great commuter rail success stories is starting to look more like a cautionary tale. South Florida's Tri-Rail system, which increased its ridership 22.9% last year to 4,303,509, is preparing to eliminate 20 of its 50 weekday trains that operate between Miami and West Palm Beach, plus all of its weekend and holiday trains.
Nothing short of a miracle that no one expects can forestall this worst-case scenario, and Tri-Rail is slimming down, hoping to get by for the next 18 months on a vastly reduced operating budget until the national economy--and the tax money that supports Tri-Rail--get back to normal. The trains come off starting Oct. 5.
When and if the trains come back, riders who have been enticed to give up their auto commutes will have to be wooed back. In addition to the cuts in service, a fare increase that goes into effect next month is expected to reduce ridership by 6%.
Tri-Rail's last hope for operating dollars to replace funds lost to the recession ended when a proposed $2-a-day rental car tax died in the legislature, which adjourned Tuesday after approving a $65 billion state budget that included nothing for Tri-Rail. (The legislature also turned down efforts to advance SunRail passenger service in central Florida.)
Serving southern Florida for the last 20 years, Tri-Rail started up as temporary commuter service to relieve highway congestion while an Interstate highway was being rebuilt. It was so successful that it stayed, and grew to the point where South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Joe Giuletti was able to say just a few months ago: "People in South Florida, like record numbers across the country, have come to realize that using public transportation isn't just about saving money on gasoline; it's also about mobility, sustainability, and taking responsibility for the environment."
Unfortunately, some people in Florida and across the country still have to learn that commuter rail service isn't just about moving the masses--it's also about dedicated funding. That's an item Florida lawmakers refused to find for Tri-Rail.